Between The Words and The Swords

by Elsa Lilja Gunnarsdottir

Elsa is a student at the American College of Norway. She was born in Saudi Arabia to Icelandic parents and grew up in Norway. Throughout this semester, Elsa will contribute weekly blog posts to ACN Promoting Peace on various topics. Her passions include international relations, politics, and diplomacy, which inspires her to study political science. Elsa's writing got her chosen to attend the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which will take place in March.
Elsa is a student at the American College of Norway. She was born in Saudi Arabia to Icelandic parents and grew up in Norway. Throughout this semester, Elsa will contribute weekly blog posts to ACN Promoting Peace on various topics. Her passions include international relations, politics, and diplomacy, which inspires her to study political science. Elsa’s writing got her chosen to attend the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which will take place in March.

The question at hand was whether I agree with Alfred Nobel’s view of deterrence of balance of power between nations or Bertha von Suttner’s view of reduction of arms and peace-congresess/unions as the best way to keep peace. As part of the research process for the upcoming Nobel Peace Prize Forum event in March and for this application, I have read the book “Kvinnen Bak Fredsprisen” (The Woman Behind The Peace Prize, The story of Bertha von Suttner and Alfred Nobel) By Anne Synnove Simensen. In my reflections I have used this book as my main source.

Imagine a world where every country has equal power and is equally armed, where no single state is stronger or more powerful than the other, but every state is alike. Now imagine the opposite; Imagine all states unarmed and without any sort of power over any other country. Every state is still equal to the other, just equally powerless rather than equally powerful. That leaves the question of which world would be a better one.

Personally, I find this question very difficult to answer. At first thought, I would have clearly stated that the utopian world for me would be one as Bertha von Suttner idealized – reduction of arms and with conflict prevention by the force of peace-congresses and unions. Those are to me the ideal steps towards peace.

But then I think about the world today, and I ask myself, is this really possible? The realist holds the thought that in order to preserve peace, one cannot appear weaker in the eyes of another state – a potential enemy – because then one would be vulnerable and might be subject to an attack. But is this any more realistic?

I start wondering about the reasons we have mandatory military service here in Norway, and why we are training an army when Norway hasn’t been at war for decades. Sure, we send troops to assist in conflicts in other parts of the world, but still it’s curious to me why we need military defence. Norway has a lot of valuable resources, like for instance the oil, that could be very appealing to other countries. Might we be in greater danger of invasion if we wouldn’t have trained military forces? I don’t know if this question so much requires an answer, as it is rather a matter of whether we are too scared to find out… Is it fear that keeps these arms-races and military build-ups going? Or is it purely a struggle for power? Perhaps even both. I cannot speak for every citizen or every authority in every country of the world – which makes it impossible for me to know the answers to these questions, if there even are any answers. But I believe that there is a fine line between what is ideal and what is realistic, and it is a line that I find rather unfortunate.

Personally, I would wish not only the absence of war – but also the absence of violence and conflict. I wish for a world where everyone is treated with respect, empathy and understanding, where human rights are enforced and any disagreement could be solved with reasonable discussions. In many ways similar to the kind of world Bertha dedicated her life to bring into being. Yet I feel that this is perhaps not as realistic as I wish it could be. In many ways, Bertha is right; if there are little or no arms to battle with, there will be little possibility of a battle emerging. But for this theory to be put into practice, every nation would have to be willing to give up their weapons. If all nations were to agree, then I think it would be a very effective way to restore peace. But one cannot control the minds and actions of other people, because although unfortunate (when some want to exercise war), fortunately it is a human being’s right to speak their mind and do what they want, as long as it is according to law. So maybe if there were stricter laws and regulations on using violence or military means in all countries, conflict would be avoided? Could be, but I do not believe this to be entirely true either, because no matter what the law says, there are always going to be some who do not follow it. The best we can do is try to convince them that there is a better and more peaceful option. But can that really work with everyone? Or do we need to scare them into abiding the law?

While von Suttner believed in solving conflicts by negotiating peace through organized peace unions and congresses, Nobel believed that people needed to be deterred from engaging in conflict. In some ways, he believed in fear as a means for keeping peace, and in that way nations would be forced to preserve peace because of the danger that war and conflict would create. But aren’t these worries already present? The commander of an army knows that there are many lives at stake when he or she engages in war, yet somehow that doesn’t scare him or her enough.

Alfred Nobel once said, “The day two armies are capable of eradicating eachother in a second, all civilized nations will withdraw from war in fear and dissolve their forces.”[1] Basically, he is saying that we need to be frightened so that we will not dare to go to war. What comes to mind from this quote is that this is something we have already experienced, though long after Nobels death. This phrase became a reality during the Cold War, where Soviet and U.S. forces were powerful enough to exterminate eachother in one simple maneuver. They were both powerful enough to completely wipe out the other, yet they did not. So was Alfred Nobel right? I wonder what he would say about this if he were still alive during that time. Of course this did not put an end to all conflict in our world, and all civilized nations did not dissolve their forces. Still, one can wonder if the most powerful countries in the early 1900’s, including the U.S. and the USSR, would still have been in conflict today if it weren’t for the massive arms race and the fear it spread during the time of the Cold War.

Von Suttner, on the other hand, according to the book “The Woman Behind the Peace Prize”, had a different solution to prevent war and preserve peace. She believed in establishing an organization that could transcend borders and work as a common form of government in the mission of restoring peace.[2] In many ways, as I previously stated, I do agree with Nobel that by looking at history, his method has proven to be true at least in the case of the Cold War. Yet one must not undermine the power of unions and organizations of peace. I was truly made aware of the power of the non-partisan organizations – that wish only to promote and sustain peace – when I met the President of the Red Cross of Norway. He told stories about some of the most dangerous areas in the world, where neither police nor military dare to enter. The only people safe to enter are volunteers of the Red Cross. Because even the most dangerous criminals will not lay a finger on members of this organization, because they know that they are there, not to judge, but to help them and their families, regardless of the horrible things they may have done. That’s why I believe in unified, non-partisan organizations and that perhaps, and hopefully, some day they might be the sole form of conflict resolution – because, as proven, even violent criminals support and believe in them.

Another example is the United Nations. It acts as a neutral party when two states or groups are in conflict. The UN does not take sides, but tries to solve the conflict in favor of both parties. The states are still sovereign, which means the UN cannot control what each government does, but it can intervene and send troops into areas of conflict if the Security Council approves.[3] Looking at the United Nations as an example, von Suttner’s vision has in many ways come true. The foundation of both the United Nations and the European Union is in many ways exactly what she dreamed about. This year, Bertha von Suttner’s ideas of peace and transnational organizations are especially important because a union, such as the ones she believed in – namely, the European Union – won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. Of these organizations, now that the EU has actually won the award for their efforts in the cause that Bertha believed in; a cooperative European union working together and being dependent on eachother, so that war has become nearly impossible. That means Bertha has in some way been proven right by history as well and her theory is still becoming gradually more successful. According to the positive outlook on the progression of these organizations today, it is all the more reason to hope that her theory will “conquer”.

As an aspiring diplomat, I cannot say I do not believe in peaceful negotiations between nations. I clearly believe in the idea of peace organizations and their ability to resolve conflicts in non-violent manners. The reason I do not undoubtedly conform with this view that Bertha proposes, is that I still believe that the ideas some nations still hold (to attack when it is in their interest, and to never be weaker than their enemy in order to not be vulnerable) makes it necessary to be equally powerful, to avoid the risk of being attacked – although I wish this weren’t true. I guess I hold a realist deep inside myself, although I’m optimistic that in the future, peace organizations can hopefully be the solution and end to all violence and conflict. These types of organizations are consistently gaining more power, as they work together across borders, to get involved in conflicts in the hopes of resolving conflicts.  The issue is often of the states’ sovereignity, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it gives organizations such as the United Nations less authority to control any abuse of power and violence commited by a state or government. I, myself, have been a part of a Model United Nations, and I learned, hands-on, how collaboration could truly be great in finding the best common solution, and that this solution can have a great impact on the countries involved in the conflict. And thankfully, many conflicts have been resolved in peaceful manners. We have these kind of collaborative unions to thank for keeping peace between previous rival nations such as France and Germany, where war is now unthinkable because of their dependence on eachother due to the European Union. Looking at these positive progressions, although they have hit some bumps along the road, I believe in the future of peace unions and organizations.

I am hoping that the need to be equally armed is soon to be outdated, and that we instead need not fear our brother nations. I cannot guarantee that we will not have another Cold War or something like it. But I know that the best way to compromise this idea is between collaboration; for instance in making states dependent on eachother so that war would be very non-beneficial for both parts, which it in many ways became after the coal and steel union that was the origin of the European Union.[4] I will say that I believe in Bertha’s view and I agree that it is the best and most harmless solution, yet I cannot dismiss Nobel’s view entirely. Because if his view were completely untrue, then why would anyone feel the need to create nuclear weapons? I know this isn’t about what is true or not, rather whom I agree with. But because of the evidence we have seen through history, and looking at conflicts that are breaking out consistently also in current time; I believe that unfortunately we cannot “lay down our arms”[5] until every inch of the world agrees with Bertha’s idea.

According Bertha von Suttner, as it is stated in the book “The Woman Behind the Peace Prize”, Alfred Nobel believed that peace is “created” by fear; a belief which von Suttner strongly opposed.[6] Bertha believed that peace should be based on trust and not on fear. I definitely agree with this; that peace should be based on trust. Yet unfortunately I cannot claim that everyone is to be trusted, and I do not believe I can dismiss Alfred’s view untill I can guarantee this. At the same time, Nobel indicates that he believes Bertha’s “solution” might be the reality for future generations after “the coming of a proud and more superior mankind.” I am also optimistic about the future, though I am not sure I believe in a more superior makind, but hopefully a more peaceful one. Nobel was also a believer in public enlightenment and education, according to the same source. It is as if Nobel is saying that the world can change if the people change. And that is a view I very much agree with. If we all would agree that keeping peace is the best for all of us, then we probably could ultimately have world peace.

In my efforts of reflecting which view I agree with, I found I agree with both and that their views can still be applied in the world today. Political views are often split between realists and liberalists, just as I believe Von Suttner and Nobel were as well, even though they might not have defined themselves in that way at the time. Von Suttner being the liberal (or I guess at the time she defined herself as a pacifist; an opposer of war and violence), who believes that peace can exist by cooperation, and Alfred the realist who believes that every rival country has to be as equally powerful as their opponent for war to be avoided. Although I would define myself more as a liberalist than a realist, and I agree mostly with Bertha that her argument is the way I think the world should be, I unfortunately cannot claim that Alfred Nobel is completely wrong either. Although I might indicate that I am most in favor of Bertha’s idea of keeping peace, it does not mean that I do not agree with Nobel’s theory. I wish we could live without any arms, but I do not reckon it is possible in our current time. I wish I had a clear-cut, right or wrong answer to this question I have been asked, as matter of fact I wish the world had it, for it could mean a permanent end to all conflict. But regretably, I do not. For now I can only hope, and perhaps some day I can even contribute myself in the efforts of keeping peace in the world.

In writing this, I have tried to look at both historical evidence and reflect on my own opinions and predictions. I have found that in evaluating both the argument of Nobel with balance of power and von Suttner with reduction of arms, I feel that they have both proven to be realistic and reasonable and that they both agree to my beliefs (though in various degrees, between what I hope and what I feel is realistic). Do I agree that it is best to keep peace by reducing arms and resolving conflicts with peace unions and congresses, or would it be better if all nations were equally powerful and that we would not face war in fear of the consequences? I wish to answer this question with another question. I will not answer this question that I ask because the question itself is rather a statement, not something I necessarily want proven correct or a reasonable, fact-based this-or-that, Von Suttner-or-Nobel. My conclusion instead will seek to be thought-provoking, and is something I have been thinking about while trying to answer this question of which view I agree with. Rather my question sees the world as either one with the view of Nobel or the view of von Suttner, and asks which would be a better one to live in. After trying to look into myself and figure out whom I agree with, I feel that both von Suttner and Nobel have reasonable merit and that I can agree with both of them. So as my final statement, I would like to place the main question in a different light:

Would you rather live in a world where you know you are always protected from your enemy, or a world where there is no enemy to fear?



[1] Kvinnen Bak Fredsprisen, by Anne Synnøve Simensen (p.47) English Translation by Elsa Gunnarsdottir

[2] Kvinnen Bak Fredsprisen by Anne Synnøve Simensen (p.120) English Translation by Elsa Gunnarsdottir

[3] More info about the UN Security Council:

[4] States became dependent on eachother because of the coal and steel trade, and now cooperate on many other levels, such as economy, common policies, etc. More info:

[5] Reference to Bertha von Suttner’s most successful book, with the title “Lay Down Your Arms”.

[6] Kvinnen Bak Fredsprisen by Anne Synnove Simensen (p.177) English translation by Elsa Gunnarsdottir


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